Wilberforce Institute Researcher Delivers Climate Change Recommendations in Parliament

Saphia Fleury

PhD Student, Falling Through the Net Cluster

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

S.Fleury-2019@hull.ac.uk

Saphia Fleury talks about her research on climate change and the opportunity it gave her to present evidence to parliamentarians last month.

Influencing government policy is a key aim of academia and a strong motivator for many who choose to study for a PhD at the University of Hull. One effective way to achieve change is by submitting evidence to UK parliamentary inquiries and government consultations. (Information about inquiries and consultations in Wales and Scotland is accessible via the websites of the Senedd Cymru and Scottish Parliament). 

My research looks at how people migrate in the context of climate change and natural disasters and the protection gaps that need filling to protect migrants’ human rights. In May, I submitted written evidence to the Parliamentary Committee on Defence and Climate Change, which looks at new security threats arising from environmental change. My evidence demonstrated the links between violent struggles and environmental change, from community conflict to wars on an international scale.

As well as having my evidence published on the Committee’s website, I was invited to present it in person in Parliament on 1 November. Contributors are frequently asked to speak as witnesses before formal committee meetings, but on this occasion the format was a little different. The Commonwealth Parliamentary Association invited ministers and MPs from across the Commonwealth to join UK parliamentarians to explore emerging security threats arising from climate change, cybersecurity and other phenomena. The session to which I was invited was chaired by Dame Margaret Beckett and heard evidence from Professor Rear Admiral Neil Morisetti on the UK defence apparatus’ approach to climate change, and Dr Stuart Parkinson on the carbon footprint of the military and the threat to climate stability from nuclear weapons.

Houses of Parliament and Big Ben, London, UK. Photo courtesy of Marcin Nowak at Unsplash.

I focused my presentation on the four main drivers of climate-induced insecurity: extreme weather events including flash floods and hurricanes; slower, creeping changes such as drought; pandemics and the spread of disease vectors; and human displacement. On the last point, I described how it can be difficult to ascribe human migration to environmental factors alone, since people leave their homes for multiple, complex reasons for which climate change may be a trigger. Nevertheless, changes to the environment play an increasing role in driving people to seek better living conditions elsewhere and the world has not adequately prepared for the human rights crisis that may ensue.

To this end, I made three recommendations to the decision-makers in the room. First, migration should be prevented at source with a robust disaster response, sufficient funding for adaptation, and protecting and fulfilling people’s human rights in situ. Second, accepting that some migration will always occur and can indeed be a positive adaptation measure in itself, people on the move must be protected through safe and orderly migration routes and protection measures, even if they don’t meet the internationally recognised definition of a ‘refugee’. Third, planned resettlement should be facilitated by governments when changes to the environment render it impossible for people to remain in their community or country. In the latter case, affected individuals should be fully consulted in relocation planning and given support to move to new homes and, where necessary, new livelihoods. By implementing these changes through bilateral and multilateral agreements, governments can help to stem the flow of dangerous, irregular migration that harms the migrants themselves and risks triggering political backlash and community conflict.

The high level of engagement with the issue of climate change by those parliamentarians present was clear from the numerous questions posed during the session. Delegates from small island states and developing nations spoke of the urgent need for adaptation support from high-income countries and the inevitability that some of their citizens would have to be relocated, either temporarily or permanently. The delegate from Belize spoke movingly about an evacuation that was currently underway in his country to move people out of the path of an incoming hurricane. The intensity and frequency of hurricanes in the Caribbean Basin, where Belize is situated, is increasing as rising global temperatures warm the sea and air. The perspectives of delegates from Commonwealth countries and British Overseas Territories served to remind all present that climate change is not a theoretical, future problem, but a lived reality for millions of British and Commonwealth citizens globally. There has never been a more urgent time for researchers to make their findings heard by those in power.

Sir Lindsay Hoyle, Speaker of the House of Commons, addressing parliamentarians on 1 November 2022. © Commonwealth Parliamentary Association UK. Images Copyright http://www.tellingphotography.com

Facing Unpleasant Facts:  Pondering British Slave Trade Abolition

Professor David Richardson

Emeritus Professor and Former Director of the Wilberforce Institute

P.D.Richardson@hull.ac.uk

As his new book Principles and Agents: The British Slave Trade and Its Abolition is published, Professor David Richardson considers the power of ordinary people to effect social change.

In an essay published in 1946, the anti-imperialist George Orwell explained why he wrote. Orwell recognised egoism – the need ‘to be talked about’ or even ‘to be remembered after death’ – as a motivator of writing. He also claimed to have ‘a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts’, going on to point to historical impulse and political purpose as driving his literary endeavours. The impulse included a desire to uncover ‘true facts and store them up for the use of posterity’; the purpose, an ambition ‘to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive after’ (George Orwell, Animal Farm and Selected Essays (Wordsworth Classics, Ware, Hertfordshire, 2021), 203, 205-6).  

Published a year after Animal Farm, his masterful attack on the wartime British ally Stalin who he saw as betraying the Russian Revolution, Orwell’s essay provided a philosophical rationale for other of his works, notably Nineteen Eighty-Four, published a year before his death in 1950 and which constituted a satire on the evils of totalitarianism and unrestrained power.  But his 1946 essay is relevant to writings on other historical questions concerning the use and abuse of such power, including British imperialism, to which Orwell often alluded, and, more specifically, the story of British abolitionism and transatlantic slavery, about which he appears to have written very little, if anything, yet from which his ancestors seemingly profited (Wikipedia.org). Interestingly, re-interpretations of abolitionism from Marxist or pseudo-Marxist perspectives began to appear at the time that Orwell was writing. They identified abolitionist impulses with wider revolutionary events in America, Britain, France, and Haiti, portraying them as appropriated or betrayed by motives other than the humanitarianism that informed earlier assessments of British slave trade abolition in 1807.  In such reformulations, policy decisions relating to British slaving and ultimately Caribbean slavery were driven by calculation of British economic self-interest, not morality, as the nation industrialised. Put another way, British antislavery was integral to a capitalist-driven ideological shift from mercantilism to laisser-faire during the Industrial Revolution.

Political interventions to end the slave trade and slavery were, however, not costless. In the British case, as I show in my book Principles and Agents: The British Slave Trade and its Abolition (Yale University Press, New Haven CT, 2022), the campaign against the slave trade occurred as British slaving was at its height and when its domination of the Atlantic slave trade was at its peak. The campaign lasted twenty years from 1787 to 1807. Driven primarily by moral values, it was resisted by powerful and well represented pro-slavery interests in Parliament that highlighted slavery’s net contribution to the British economy. Such claims find validation in some recent historical research (Klas Ronnback, ‘On the Economic Importance of the Slave Plantation Complex to the British Economy in the Eighteenth Century: A Value-Added Approach’, Journal of Global History, 13, no 3 (2018), 309-27; Ronnback, ‘Governance, Value-Added and Rents in Plantation Slavery-Based Value-Chains’, Slavery & Abolition, 42, no 1 (2021), 130-50). Unsurprisingly, dire economic consequences were predicted for Britain and its slave colonies should the longstanding and legally sanctioned trade in enslaved Africans be abolished. In the end it was not economics but national security issues in the middle of a titanic power struggle with Napoleonic France, and that included the security of the West Indian slave colonies following the slave-led Haitian revolution of 1791-1804, that accounted for the passage of the slave trade abolition act of 1807.  The timing of that act owed more to the geopolitics of war and to fears of slave rebellion than the advancement of capitalist interests.

As my book shows, the humanitarian concerns that first motivated British abolitionism from the 1780s had long roots, developing in parallel with growth of British slaving activity from the 1640s onward. They became enmeshed, in turn, in continuing debates about the nature and political ramifications of Britain’s emerging American empire. The issues were aired in scientific, religious, and philosophical writings of the later seventeenth century.  And they evolved in intellectual content, as well as in social reach and intensity, in the century before the age of revolutions that began with the War of American Independence in 1776-1783.  The process embodied for some a profound disquiet, even anger, at the nation’s involvement in enslaving Africans as fellow humans in pursuit of imperial goals. For a nation imbued with a sense of its own people’s personal freedom as well as emergent notions of empathy or benevolence, trafficking enslaved Africans for economic gain became an unpleasant, and for increasing numbers, unacceptable, facet of British empire building. Such ideas surfaced in both imaginative literature and the press as well as in religious tracts and philosophical treatises, some of which professed incompatibilities between human trafficking and slavery and notions of human progress and civilised society. Underneath the rising scale of British slaving activity therefore there existed simmering ideological tensions at home over it. These have been largely neglected or, when mentioned, usually seen as of marginal importance before the 1780s.

Those tensions, however, became politicised in the 1770s during the deepening crisis between Britain and its mainland North American colonies. They prompted David Hartley, MP for Kingston upon Hull, to propose a motion in the House of Commons in 1776 condemning the slave trade on grounds of its inhumanity. That was thirteen years before the Hull-born William Wilberforce, MP for Yorkshire and designated parliamentary leader of the formal anti-slave trade campaign, addressed the House on the issue in May 1789. Wilberforce’s speech, eulogised by Melvyn Bragg (Twelve Books that Changed the World (Sceptre, 2007)), coincided with a huge eruption of extra-parliamentary outrage against the trade in 1787-1792 that forced Parliament first seriously to address and then ultimately to resolve the domestic ideological conflict surrounding it.  If, as noted, security issues dictated the timing of the 1807 abolition act, it was publicly articulated humanitarian concerns over British slaving that inspired, underwrote and drove the anti-slave trade campaign that provoked parliamentary action.  

“Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, 1807,” TPL Virtual Exhibits, accessed January 31, 2022, http://omeka.tplcs.ca/virtual-exhibits/items/show/143.

As a writer and journalist, George Orwell would doubtless have admired the many contributions of eighteenth-century British imaginative literature and newspapers that encouraged people to campaign openly for ‘progressive’ social change such as slave trade abolition in early industrialising Britain. That campaign was a prime example of an emergent mass politics in Britain during the early years of industrialisation and the rapid urbanisation of British society to which it gave rise. It involved a mobilisation of public opinion on an unprecedented scale and one unmatched by any other anti-slave trade movement in history.  The movement continued beyond 1807 in looking to suppress slaving activities by other nations.  Support for both came from towns and the countryside; it transcended class, gender, religious affiliation, and race. And, while leadership of the movement in Parliament was ultimately critical in delivering formal abolition in 1807, it was the nationwide scale of petitioning against the trade in 1787-1792 and the maintenance of that public support for abolition thereafter that put outlawing the slave trade on the national political agenda and ensured that it remained there even as Britain became embroiled in war with revolutionary and later Napoleonic France in 1793-1815.  That support was acknowledged a month before the abolition bill passed in March 1807 when a Jamaican sugar planter resident in Ayrshire, Scotland, observed that ‘the voice of the Country was very much in favour of this Prohibition’ (Alex Renton, Blood Legacy, Canongate Books Inc., Edinburgh, 2021, p. 208). 

Public support for abolition extended far beyond the campaign’s political leaders that most historical studies focus on. It included hundreds of thousands of people, the mobilisation of whose feelings played a decisive part in defeating the Western world’s largest and most resilient slave trafficking regime in its prime. It was a truly remarkable and historic movement, underscoring the power of ordinary people to effect social change.  As an advocate of democratic socialism, George Orwell would probably have rejoiced in that.  Within it, perhaps, may also be found inspiration, even lessons, for those concerned by and committed to overcoming today’s unpleasant facts of life such as contemporary slavery, racial injustice, and the climate emergency.